In an earlier article I set out some straightforward measures to address the lack of representation and accountability in our parliament (if only we had annual elections already!). In that piece other reforms were mentioned, including the need for regional assemblies in England.
Devolved nations and Westminster
When Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU, the government in Westminster effectively turned its back on them. Not surprisingly Scotland is now seeking another referendum on independence with a view to joining the EU. In Northern Ireland, the demographics will ensure that there will eventually be a poll to unite Ireland again within the EU.
The shock waves from Brexit are threatening the very existence of the United Kingdom, but perhaps regional assemblies for England could offer a way in which the union of England, Scotland Northern Ireland and Wales might be maintained.
The response of the devolved nations within the UK to Covid has demonstrated the benefits of delegation. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland were able to decide when to start and end restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. In general their communication with their citizens was clearer and more consistent than was experienced across England. Locally we had the absurdity of waiting for officials in London to decide if the infection rate was high enough to close the village school.
Could regional assemblies in England be the answer?
Government in the United Kingdom continues to be dominated by the interests of England, and England in turn is dominated by the interests of London and the South East. Clearly this has to change if the union is to continue. Providing the English regions with similar powers to those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would ensure a much fairer distribution of power across the United Kingdom.
The regional assemblies would have a greater level of representation and providing they were elected by proportional representation (PR) a fairer one. With control of health, social care, housing, infrastructure, transport, education, policing and other regional matters they would be able to set priorities to meet the needs of their region.
This table shows the disparity between a Westminster MP representing over 100,000 voters and the devolved nations’ members representing a much smaller group of voters.
|England||56, 550,138||533 MPs||1:106,000|
|Northern Ireland||1,895,510||90 MLAs||1:21,000|
Devolution and power
Clearly Westminster does not want its power challenged by assemblies in the English regions, giving able politicians like Andy Burnham an opportunity to outshine those in Westminster, as Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford have repeatedly done in Scotland and Wales. So in a classic case of divide and rule, the model of devolution that has been adopted for England is one based on City regions.
With many of the existing nine English regions named as points on a compass, they have little real identity or recognition, their purpose now seems to be solely for the presentation of statistics. Renaming the regions would provide an opportunity to give them an identity that people might just wish to belong to, some with names that haven’t existed as places for a thousand years.
Regrouping the existing regions into just six, each with its own assembly would see the dominance of London and the South East balanced by large regions in the North and the Midlands.
The table below (with data from Statista) shows how the regions could be consolidated into six (with suggested names) and what the size of each assembly would be based on a level of representation of 1:45,000 (roughly in line with what exists in Scotland or Wales).
The assemblies would be elected using the same system as in Scotland and Wales, with the right to vote extended to those aged 16 and 17 and to those born in other countries who have settled there. This would give the English Regions the more representative government which the Scots and Welsh already enjoy.
With regional government in place across England, the role of the House of Commons and Whitehall would be focused on national infrastructure, trade, finance, foreign affairs, defence and other national matters.
Wider reforms needed
The establishment of regional assemblies could also be helpful step towards two other reforms mentioned in my earlier article.
- Proportional Representation. Watching a lecture about Roy Jenkins recently reminded me that the Labour Party had previously committed to PR, but once elected with a comfortable majority that commitment was soon set aside. Campaigning for PR to be used for elections to Westminster has yet to bear fruit after decades of trying. Perhaps it would be better for progressive parties to work towards establishing regional assemblies elected by PR for England instead. This could be a more achievable goal, and give the English experience of how fairer representation can influence the development, funding, and delivery of public services for the better.
- The House of Lords. The House of Lords is centuries past its use by date, that it still exists is frankly an embarrassment. Expanding each regional assembly by say 40 members, would give them enough members who could also sit in a new second chamber in Westminster. With the six English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that chamber would then have 360 members (40 x 9). It would have a clear democratic mandate to provide a direct legislative link between the regional assemblies and the national government, with powers to scrutinise, amend or reject legislation produced by the House of Commons.
Strength in the Union through devolution
For centuries our ancestors have subjugated and exploited the people of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, so it is understandable why they may now wish to leave a union that their ancestors did not freely choose to join.
What the English have so far failed to recognise, is that it is up to us to make the United Kingdom a more attractive proposition for the other nations to remain. It is unlikely that by simply offering the Scottish people the status quo, that the union would survive another referendum. The parliaments in Scotland and Wales have demonstrated the value of subsidiarity, the benefits of greater representation and wider engagement.
Regional assemblies in England would end the domination of the Westminster-based government on domestic matters, and give the regional assemblies a real say on national matters. This might just be enough make the case more compelling for the other nations to choose to remain within the UK, but it really is up to us.
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